Speaker: Professor Mona Lynch, University of California, Irvine
Recent punishment and society scholarship has addressed the limits of policy reforms aimed at reducing mass incarceration in the U.S. This work has focused in particular on the political dimensions of penal legal reform and policy-making, and the compromises and shortcomings in those process. Nearly absent in this scholarship, however, has been empirical and theoretical engagement with the role of front-line prosecutors as facilitators and/or resistors to downsizing efforts. Using the case of the U.S. federal criminal legal system’s modest efforts to decrease the system’s racially disparate and punitive outcomes, this paper elucidates the fragile nature of such reforms by delineating the critical role that front-line prosecutors play in maintaining punitive approaches. Focusing specifically on federal prosecutorial policy and practices in the Trump era, I draw on a subset of data from an interdisciplinary, multi-methodological project set in four distinct federal court jurisdictions in the U.S. to examine how front-line prosecutors were able to quickly reverse course on reform through the use of their uniquely powerful charging and plea-bargaining tools. My findings illustrate how federal prosecutors pursued more low-level defendants, utilized statutory “hammers,” including mandatory minimums and mandatory enhancements to ensure harsh punishments, and changed their sentencing advocacy practices to pressure judges to impose longer sentences.